Study Indicates Stark Need for a South King County Paradigm Shift on Multilingual Education

by Ari Robin McKenna

A report launched Tuesday, Dec. 8, outlines how to scale up multilingual education to meet the dire need for it in South King County. Called Our Rising Voices: A Call to Action to Support Our Multilingual Students, the study was the result of a year-long collaboration between the Road Map Project, the Community Center for Education Results, and One America.

Looking at data from public schools within the so-called “Road Map Project region” of South Seattle, Tukwila, Renton, Highline, Kent, Federal Way, and Auburn, the report concludes that 42% of students are English learners at some point during their K-12 education. Yet, only 8% of teachers in that region are endorsed in English Language Learning (ELL), and a mere 0.4% of teachers are endorsed in Bilingual Education. This systemic failure to adequately serve almost half the students in this region is especially troubling given how many English learners there are in this state. At the Zoom launch of this report, Veronica Gallardo, the state’s assistant superintendent of Schools and Systems Improvements — and a long time member of Road Map Project’s English Language Learners Work Group — cited the fact that Washington has the nation’s seventh largest English learner (EL) population and the second largest migrant population in the nation. Gallardo said, “The data makes the need for this work undeniable.”

The “work” that Gallardo is referring to amounts to a paradigm shift in how students are perceived, how they are supported, and the language that is used to describe them. Nina “Will” WIlliams, the director of Multilingual Education for the Kent school district, described the existing model at the report launch: “It is every teacher’s responsibility to teach both content and language. And somehow, people have gotten the idea over the years that the content area teachers teach some students. Then the EL teacher takes the other students — the emergent multilingual students — out in the hallway and does some magical thing, because perhaps they’re broken, and maybe he or she can fix them. Multilingual learners are not broken. They have an amazing skill set. … And they’re being passed over, they’re being relegated and segregated still to this day, and it’s not okay.”

In the report, emergent multilingual (EM) is preferred over the still common English learner (EL) because this shift in language signifies a shift from a deficit to an asset-based approach towards students, who, after all, are learning their second (or third) language in a classroom full of mostly monolingual students. Fenglan Nancy Yi-Cline, a language learning specialist at Seattle Public Schools, commented during the report launch that emergent multilinguals “should never be expected to be de-languaged and de-colored to just learn the white-centered curriculum and to be expected to be integrated fully into one way of looking and one way of education.”

Our Rising Voices’s call to action is aimed at people, “at every level of decision-making in education” — including postsecondary education. Their specific recommendations involve antiracist pedagogy; consistent family engagement; “recruitment, hiring and retention” of racially diverse, multilingual educators; increasing access to multilingual learning environments; and implementing “educational best practices” that are rooted in racial equity.” 

Quoted in the report is Norma Maldonado, an early learning specialist, who says, “The system is unprepared for our children.” While Our Rising Voices makes sure to highlight existing efforts such as the various “Grow Your Own” teacher recruitment programs in each district, it also makes it clear that districts have been derelict in how they have gone about addressing emergent multilingual students. The Our Rising Voices study provides the scope of the problem, encourages a sense of urgency, and provides tangible suggestions for how the Road Map Project region can become prepared.

Read the full report here: 

Our Rising Voices: A Call To Action To Support Emergent Multilingual Students

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). Currently he writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. Please feel free to contact him here.

Featured image: Rainier Beach High School students gather before a 2018 assembly. (Photo: Susan Fried)